Skip to main content

Commons Chamber

Volume 168: debated on Wednesday 28 February 1990

The text on this page has been created from Hansard archive content, it may contain typographical errors.

House Of Commons

Wednesday 28 February 1990

The House met at half-past Two o'clock


[MR. SPEAKER in the Chair]

New Writ

For Mid-Staffordshire, in the room of Bentley John Heddle Esq., deceased.— [Mr. Renton.]

Oral Answers To Questions


Lothian Health Board


To ask the Secretary of State for Scotland when he last met the chairman of the Lothian health board; and what was discussed.

I have not had an official meeting with the chairman of Lothian health board recently, but my Department has been in regular contact with the chairman of the board in recent weeks.

When will the Secretary of State come clean about the crisis in the Health Service in Lothian? What cuts in the service will have to be made if it is to balance its books by the end of the year? Why has not the Secretary of State published Mr. Cruickshank's report, and when will he admit that the present crisis is a consequence of the Government's failure, year in, year out, to provide money for the additional number of old people and for advances in medical technology?

As the hon. Gentleman well knows, Lothian is one of the better-funded health boards in the United Kingdom. If other boards throughout Scotland and south of the border are able to contain their expenditure within their budget, it is obviously reasonable to expect Lothian to do the same.

I should be unhappy about publishing the recent report into Lothian's finances without the agreement of the board itself. At present, we are working on the main priority—trying to find a way of ensuring that the board contains its expenditure within the resources provided for it and without unacceptable consequences for patients, whom the hon. Gentleman and I both want to be protected.

The Secretary of State must know that it has already been established that the health board has been underfunded for many years. Why does he criticise the present board, all of whose members are his nominees? Can he reply specifically to the charge that the extent of the deficit means that there is now a crisis in the Health Service in Midlothian, which will result in hospital closures and cuts in medical staff numbers?

I have already said that I see no good ground for crisis closures. We all want a proper study to be made of the circumstances that have led to the overspending. We are announcing today a significant increase in the board's cash limit for the current year, to enable it to make any payments that fall due in that year. We now await the board's proposals—arrived at in consultation with the chief executive of the NHS in Scotland—for dealing with the longer-term problems.

Fishing Industry


To ask the Secretary of State for Scotland if he will make a further statement on the current situation in the Scottish fishing industry.

My right hon. and learned Friend discussed the industry's: problems recently with the Scottish Fishermen's Federation. The Government will be monitoring the situation closely and will, as always, keep in regular contact with the industry.

When will the Government act to prevent an increase in fishing activity off the west coast of Scotland as a direct result of limits imposed on east-coast fishing? Does the Minister agree that such an increase is harmful to conservation and to the fragile communities that live on the west coast, and will he undertake to act immediately to stop such encroachments?

I understand the hon. Gentleman's concern, but, as he will appreciate, there are certain historic rights of access on the west coast. He will know that we have already taken action: for example, we have proposed that fishermen should radio in when they cross the 4 degree line—a suggestion which came from the fishing industry. We are waiting for a report from our scientists on the position relating to nephrops. I assure the hon. Gentleman that we shall keep the matter under close review, and give consideration to whatever action is necessary.

Why are the Government so opposed to the introduction of a decommissiong scheme? Would not that be the best safeguard for the future of the industry, and the contribution that it makes to our economy and to the future of the many fishing communities around our coast?

I welcome my right hon. Friend back to Scottish questions. He will know that we have considered the matter carefully and that the last time such a scheme was tried, it was not successful. It would be a very costly exercise; it would probably take out the least efficient fishermen and would not be the best way to resolve the problem. However, we are aware of the difficulties and are continuing to keep in close touch with the European Commission on these matters and on how to reduce overfishing.

Does the Minister recognise that the Scottish fishing industry has been severely hit, not simply because the weather is worse than usual, but because of the new regulations for unemployment benefit? Many of those employed in the Scottish fishing industry do not earn an income as they are not working, and do not get benefit. Under the new circumstances, will the Minister give further consideration to aiding the Scottish fishing industry?

I shall certainly consider what the right hon. Gentleman said. He will be aware that last year the total income of the Scottish industry was only 3 per cent. lower in cash terms than the previous record year, and in previous years the income of the industry rose substantially.

With reference to the thoughtful question put by the right hon. Member for Kincardine and Deeside (Mr. Buchanan-Smith), why do not the Government show the same sympathy to fishermen as they express when farmers are in trouble? When will the Government introduce a maritime counterpart to the set-aside scheme? Is it not the case that vis-a-vis the multiannual guidance programme obligations, some 200 to 300 fishing vessels will have to be stripped from the Scottish fishing fleet within the next two years? When will the Government play the game by introducing a fair and reasonable decommissioning scheme for the industry?

I have already answered the question about a decommissioning scheme. The Government's concern for the fishing industry has become apparent from the close and detailed attention that it has received from my right hon. and learned Friend the Secretary of State for Scotland and my right hon. Friend the Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food in recent months. The hon. Gentleman will be aware of the success of my right hon. and learned Friend and my right hon. Friend at the Council meeting last December in securing a good deal for this country.

Lothian Health Board


To ask the Secretary of State for Scotland what action he proposes to take following the investigation of the finances of Lothian health board by Mr. Don Cruickshank.

Discussions are continuing with Lothian health board.

Is not it intolerable that the future of the National Health Service in Lothian should be decided by Mr. Cruickshank and by Peat, Marwick, McLintock behind closed doors? Will the Minister confirm that the value in real terms of the increased allocation for Lothian health board next year is just £8 million, which will be completely swallowed up and wiped out by the repayment of the loan to deal with the present crisis in Lothian health board? Meanwhile we still have a staffing freeze, closures of theatre units and beds and rock bottom morale in the Health Service in Lothian region. Can we have a proper review of the needs of the Health Service in Lothian and will the Minister ensure that the service is funded in accordance with those needs?

The hon. Gentleman seems to be labouring under a misapprehension. I cannot confirm his figure for the resources for Lothian because it is not correct. The hon. Gentleman talked about the resources available to Lothian health board and took no account of the 1 per cent. that will be available from efficiency savings, to which I know Opposition Members are opposed. As for the Peat, Marwick, McLintock report, the hon.Gentleman should know that decisions about priorities in Lothian health board will be determined by the health board, not by the chief executive, not by the consultants. The chief executive and the consultants are endeavouring to be helpful because the board has spent more than the resources allocated to it, which was discovered at a very late stage in the financial year.

Does not the Minister realise that the Secretary of State has appointed a man to preside over the Health Service in Scotland who, when chairman of Wandsworth health authority, presided over the loss of more than 100 beds and a hospital, and ward closures?

Those cuts led to no savings, but caused much harm to patient services. Even with the loss of Bruntsfield hospital and Elsie Inglis hospital, the current round of funding leaves Lothian health board with fewer resources than it needs. Its resources do not match medical inflation, and that will result in further ward and hospital closures.

It is true that the chief executive of the Health Service in Scotland was chairman of Wandsworth health authority. I am sure that the hon. Gentleman will wish to acknowledge that the resources available to the Health Service in Scotland are about 25 per cent. higher per head than south of the border. Lothian is the second best funded health board in Scotland. It has benefited from the considerable expansion of services, including phase I of St. John's hospital in the constituency of the hon. Member for Livingston (Mr. Cook), which is the biggest single investment project in the Health Service in Scotland. I should have thought that, from time to time, Opposition Members would recognise the strength of the Health Service and help to raise morale instead of constantly pointing to the difficulties that the chief executive and others in the management of the Health Service are attempting to cope with.

Storm Damage


To ask the Secretary of State for Scotland what assistance has been offered to the Highland region following the recent storms and floods.

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Scotland
(Lord James Douglas-Hamilton)

On 8 February, my right hon. and learned Friend confirmed that the provisions of the Bellwin scheme would be available to all authorities. We now await reports from them of expenditure that they think likely to qualify for special financial assistance. I can also announce that the Government are satisfied that additional assistance is justified for the repair of elevated flood banks. The rates of grant available under the farm and conservation grant scheme (national), which are normally 50 per cent. for the less-favoured areas and 40 per cent. elsewhere, are being increased to 75 per cent. and 60 per cent. respectively. Those rates will be available for six months from 1 March.

Is the Minister aware of Highland region's dissatisfaction and concern about the operation of the Bellwin formula, following its experience last year? In particular, will he reconsider the Scottish Office's refusal to offer grant for work on the river bed of the River Ness that is essential for the preservation of Waterloo bridge? Does he agree that the time limit that he mentioned is unreasonable because it is an arbitrary cut-off point for grant, when essential work may take longer?

I shall certainly consider the hon. Gentleman's point. In relation to the River Ness, under the Bellwin scheme we allowed as eligible expenditure all the emergency costs of road and transport services up to 31 March 1989, amounting to over £300,000. The Bellwin scheme meets the cost of immediate works, but longer-term repairs should be built into local authorities' budgets. We have provided an additional allocation for water and sewerage of almost £500 million over the next three years.

May I underscore the point made by my hon. Friend the Member for Inverness, Nairn and Lochaber (Sir R. Johnston) that, based on last year's experience, the Bellwin formula does not take adequate account of the distinctive geographical problems that Highland region is facing? The Minister spoke of enhanced grants for flood banks, which were also announced last year, but will that cover the major expenditure that will be necessary in Fort Augustus, not only to shore up existing flood banks but to instal a completely new flood bank and other flood prevention measures which are now essential following evacuations there for the past two years running?

I shall give a specific reply to the details of the hon. Gentleman's last question, but he was incorrect in the premise on which he based his first question. Aid is given above a threshold which, broadly speaking, is lower, the smaller the population. The amount of financial support also reflects the scale of the immediate emergency work necessary to safeguard life and property, and that may also be lower in heavily populated areas. I agree that updating of the threshold is required, and we hope to make a statement on that to local authorities shortly.

Community Charge


To ask the Secretary of State for Scotland how many poll tax payers in Scotland will qualify for transitional relief; and what is the estimated average relief per qualifier for 1990–91.

I expect that about half a million people will be eligible for transitional relief in Scotland. Estimates of average relief for 1990–91 have not been made.

Is not the chaotic nature of the poll tax summed up by the fact that this relief was introduced half way into year one of the poll tax in Scotland and the fact that, despite all the right hon. and learned Gentleman's claims for it, only 10 per cent. of poll tax payers will benefit from the relief, at an average rate of 50p a week?

I do not think that the hon. Gentleman listened to my answer. I said that it is estimated that half a million people are likely to be entitled to benefit. That is 10 per cent. of the population of Scotland but, as the hon. Gentleman will appreciate, all those under 18 are not liable for the community charge. A bit of elementary arithmetic would have enabled the hon. Gentleman to work that out for himself.

Has the Secretary of State taken the time to read the speculative article in The Economist last week, which suggested that the right hon. and learned Gentleman and the Prime Minister will shortly hold a press conference to announce that the poll tax cannot be satisfactorily amended and must be withdrawn and that they apologise to the people for inflicting it on them? Does not a combination of political resistance in Scotland and political panic south of the border mean that the poll tax is now on the rocks?

The Economist is better at analysing the past than predicting the future. Implementation of the community charge in Scotland is being greatly assisted by the valuable co-operation of Scottish National party-controlled Angus district council. As it is the only nationalist-controlled local authority in Scotland, I know that the hon. Gentleman will warmly welcome the fact that it is co-operating in the implementation of the community charge.

Has my right hon. and learned Friend been able to glean from the Opposition whether transitional relief will form a part of their cracked scheme for a roof tax? Has he had any representations from the seven members of the Labour party, at least, who are refusing to pay the community charge? Are they equally against the roof tax, as are many Labour party members in Scotland?

There is clearly an important distinction between the proposals. Under the Government's proposals, relief is paid to those who are currently paying the charge. I understand that, under the Labour party's roof tax proposals, relief would come to elderly pensioners in respect of their estate only when they died. That is a rather grotesque alternative proposal, which is rightly rejected throughout the Scottish community.

Does the Secretary of State accept that the difficulty of operating the transitional relief underlines the administrative nightmare that now surrounds the poll tax? Does he recall that the administrative costs for 1988–89 are estimated by his Department at above £31 million and that local authorities have already had to find £10 million to organise the rebate system? Does not the ever-deepening chaos, combined with the essential injustice of the poll tax, press the case for speedy abolition? If the Secretary of State is so concerned about a roof tax and the interests of the home owner, should not he turn his mind to the most damaging roof tax of all—ever-escalating mortgage costs, for which he is responsible?

The administrative costs of the transitional scheme are being reimbursed to local authorities, as the hon. Gentleman knows. As for his remark about the roof tax, if he does not accept criticisms from Conservative Members or from the rest of Scotland, he might at least listen to the Labour party in Paisley—[Laughter.] I am interested in the Opposition's reaction. We have been told that Labour's controversial roof tax plans have been blasted by the Paisley Labour party and that it has told the hon. Gentleman to think again. If the hon. Gentleman will not listen to the rest of Scotland, he might at least listen to those protests from his party, including the hon. Member for Dunfermline, West (Mr. Douglas), who has given him advice on the matter.

On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. It might be advisable if I were called because those remarks were not——

Order. The mere fact that the hon. Gentleman's constituency has been referred to does not mean that he is automatically called.

Trunk Roads


To ask the Secretary of State for Scotland when he expects to make a statement on the Government's conclusions following the consultation on primary trunk routes south of Edinburgh.

I hope that the Scottish Office will make a statement soon.

Is the Minister aware that substantial concern has been expressed in the consultations on the review of primary routes south of Edinburgh, about the inadequate provision for additional dualling on the Al? In my constituency fears have been expressed about the lack of improvements or proposals to increase provision for the A7 south of Hawick. Given the importance of those matters, not only to my constituency and the Borders, but nationally, will the Minister undertake to meet the appropriate hon. Members who are interested in them before he comes to a final conclusion on the review?

Yes. I give an undertaking to the hon. Gentleman that I shall be only to glad to meet him on that subject. We are anxious to reach the most appropriate decision in due course. I understood that he made that request with regard to the A7. I am aware of the joint technical report on the A1, by Northumberland county council, with Lothian and Borders regional councils. We have studied the report and shall certainly take it into account. I am aware of the initiative and interest of the relevant Members of Parliament. We shall take their views fully into account.

Will my hon. Friend bear in mind my representations to him about the importance of the A7 from Edinburgh through Hawick to Carlisle? Is he aware of the value of that road to the Borders textiles industry and to tourism? Will he do all that he can to improve that road, particularly south of Hawick, including remedying bad corners and building new bridges?

The matter is under immediate consideration. We have consulted fully on it and we hope to make a statement, as I said earlier.

In view of the conclusion of the report by the university of Louvain that poor infrastructure will be responsible for Scotland and, in particular, Strathclyde regional council, coming bottom of the league—along with the Basque country and south Yorkshire—of economic development after 1992, what does the Minister intend to do to remedy that disgraceful position?

In Scotland, for roads, £ more per head is spent on each person than in England and Wales. A substantial number of improvements in the infrastructure are planned. We have proposals for motorways throughout Scotland, many of them in the west central belt, to which the hon. Gentleman referred. Those proposals will cost £50 million and will go forward.

Transatlantic Flights


To ask the Secretary of State for Scotland what consideration he has given to the effects on tourism of permitting transatlantic flights from Edinburgh and Glasgow airports; and if he will make a statement.

Many of the responses to the Government's consultation paper on Scottish lowland airports policy addressed the possible effects on tourism of an open skies policy. All the points made have been assessed and are being taken fully into account in the review now being concluded.

Does my hon. Friend accept that the capital city of Scotland should have international gateway status and that Glasgow, as European City of Culture, should also enjoy such status provided that international standards can be met? That does not mean that I have anything against Prestwick. What I resent is Prestwick's monopoly. That is a view shared by the Scottish tourist board.

I hear my hon. Friend's views. He will know that over 1,100 submissions on the matter have been made to the Government. They have all been carefully assessed and the Government hope to publish their findings soon.

Will the Minister come clean and tell the House what was the recommendation of the Secretary of State for Scotland to the Secretary of State for Transport on the review of the Scottish lowland airports policy? Will he be even more honest and tell the House whether the opposition of the Secretary of State for Transport in Cabinet to gateway status for Glasgow and Edinburgh airports is delaying the decision that should have been made months ago and is acting against the best interests of Scotland?

The hon. Gentleman will have to contain his impatience for a little longer. He may rest assured that when the announcement is made, it will have the unanimous and wholehearted support of the Government.

Has my hon. Friend read the submissions from the Scottish tourist board and the Highlands and Islands Development Board on the benefits to Scottish tourism of an open skies policy? Does he agree with them or not? Has he read the submissions from the Scottish Development Agency and the Scottish Consumer Council? Those organisations have no parochial axe to grind on the economic benefits of giving gateway status to Glasgow. Does he or does he not agree with those submissions?

My hon. Friend is absolutely right to identify that important industry, the future of which can affect the future of the Scottish economy. It is estimated that the value of tourism to Scotland was about £420 million last year. Any improvement to that figure as a result of an open skies policy is something of which we would wish to take careful account.

On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. The three hon. Members who were called on the last question were all from one side of the argument. No one—

Order. I ask the House to bear in mind the fact that I am constantly being urged to speed up Question Time. If I called every hon. Member who had an interest in every question, we should, I judge, get down only to question No. 3. I call Mr. Robert Hughes.

Warrant Sales


To ask the Secretary of State for Scotland if he will extend the criteria for not pursuing warrant sales for poll tax defaulters to that which applied to rates defaulters before the poll tax came into force.

The collection of the community charge, including any use of poinding or warrant sales, is a matter for local authorities.

Does the Secretary of State accept that the paraphernalia and mechanisms of warrant sales should be used as the ultimate and last resort as a method of debt collection and not as the first resort, as seems to be the case with the many authorities applying for sheriff warrants even where there is genuine confusion, genuine error and genuine hardship on the part of people who are late in their poll tax payments? Will the right hon. and learned Gentleman ensure that there really is absolute discretion for local authorities to deal with each case on its merits so as to avoid the cares, the danger and the hardship facing so many people in Scotland?

Yes, I very much agree with the hon. Gentleman. There is no doubt—I do not think that there is any controversy—that if warrant sales are to be used, they should he used only as the very last resort. Opposition Members should not confuse the issuing of summary warrants with the holding of warrant sales. Many tens of thousands of summary warrants are issued, but in the past that practice has led to only a few warrant sales being necessary. This is a matter for individual local authorities, but I agree with the hon. Gentleman—I am sure that the local authorities also agree—that warrant sales should be used only if all other methods of seeking payment of a legitimate debt have failed to produce results.

May I declare an interest, Mr. Speaker, as I am wearing a free pair of trousers in the comrie and strathearn tartan—[Interruption.]

This is intended to boost the tourist industry in Scotland. Does my right hon. and learned Friend agree that if the roof tax were introduced, the number of warrant sales under the community charge or the previous rating system would multiply by thousands and ruin the tourist industry in Scotland?

There is certainly no doubt that the Labour party's roof tax proposals would hurt pensioners and others on low incomes as they would be expected to pay the same tax as people in comparable properties next door whose incomes might be much higher.

If the Government refuse to grant time for the Bill to abolish warrant sales introduced by the hon. Member for Moray (Mrs. Ewing), will the Secretary of State consider tabling an appropriate amendment during the passage of the Law Reform (Miscellaneous Provisions) (Scotland) Bill which is currently before Parliament? If the Secretary of State is so smart and insolent as to try to ridicule those people who have not paid the poll tax and who are refusing to do so, will he declare his own interest here and now by telling us exactly how many thousands of pounds he will gain annually as a result of the change from rates to poll tax?

I am not gaining thousands of pounds. The whole premise of the hon. Gentleman's question is false—[HON. MEMBERS: "How much?"] I and the vast majority of people in Scotland are paying our legal taxes. The hon. Member for Falkirk, West (Mr. Canavan ) is refusing to pay his lawful taxes and, as a result, is adding to the burden on his constituents, who will be obliged to pay the sums that the hon. Gentleman is refusing to pay. If the hon. Gentleman is a man of integrity, he should not expect his constituents to pay his taxes on his behalf—[Interruption.]

Order. I ask hon. Members not to barrack in that way from a sedentary position. It does not do our reputation any good.

Does my right hon. and learned Friend agree that in the case of all taxes of whatever kind which are required to be paid by the individual on demand there is an element that is difficult to collect? That was certainly true of the rates. Does my right hon. and learned Friend agree also that the Scottish National Party provost of Perth and Kinross and the Scottish National Party administration of Angus district recognise this and that that is why they are using whatever measures are available to them under the law to collect this tax?

Yes, indeed. Many members of the Scottish National Party are honest, law-abiding citizens. It is unfortunate that their parliamentary representatives in the SNP cannot aspire to such a reputation. Clearly, those representatives do not have the integrity of the many members of their party who are, indeed, obeying the law of the land.

Is it not feeble of the Secretary of State that, when attacking our roof tax proposals, he manages to find just one branch of one Labour constituency in the whole of Scotland to call in aid, whereas, in respect of the poll tax he refuses to listen to the people of Scotland, to his ex-fellow Cabinet Ministers and to fellow tory MPs, who would like to see the tax withdrawn as soon as possible? Why does he not stop the cruel farce of the poinding of goods in Scotland, or at least make some effort to alleviate it by withdrawing now the 20 per cent. minimum payment of the poll tax? Why does he not at the same time make a promise that anybody entitled to a rebate who has not claimed it may do so now and have it backdated to 1 April 1989?

With regard to the earlier part of the hon. Gentleman's question, he should be aware that the Paisley Central branch of the Labour party has attacked his party's roof tax proposals. The hon. Member for Glasgow, Garscadden (Mr. Dewar) was forced to call on the Financial Times as the only organ of popular opinion which had so far supported the roof tax. When the Labour party has to call upon the Financial Times as its main supporter we know that it is on the run.

Maternity Unit, Elgin


To ask the Secretary of State for Scotland how many representations he has now received supporting the development of a greenfield site for a specialist maternity unit in Elgin; and if he will make a statement on projected time scales for the announcement of his decision.

In addition to representations from the hon. Lady and from the chairman——

Order. I ask the hon. Gentleman to be patient. [Interruption.] Why does not the hon. Gentleman sit down and try again on question No. 10?

In addition to the representations that I have had from the hon. Lady, I have had representations from the chairman of the local health council, Mrs. Roma Hossack, as well as four letters from other organisations and individuals.

Does the Minister agree that he has received also 2,000 letters as part of a campaign organised by the Maternity Unit for Moray campaign? An additional 1,000 letters will be sent to him from my office shortly. Does he agree that this indicates the very strong feeling in the constituency that a greenfield site should be developed? Does he recall that, in discussions in Elgin in September 1988, he made it clear that this would be a matter not of debate about finance but of the delivery of good health care in my area? Does he agree that his right hon. and learned Friend said in June 1989 that money would be found? Can he now tell us that money will be found for this development, and may we be told the time scale involved?

I do not know whether it will come as a shock to the hon. Lady when I tell her that if she examines those letters carefully she will find that they are addressed to her and not to me. I hope that she will reply to each of them individually. Although the letters were not addressed to me, I fully acknowledge the extent of the support that exists for the provision of proper maternity and other services in Moray. The hon. Lady will know that we have received the option appraisal from Grampian health board. I have not yet had an opportunity to study it, but it is being looked at by officials. A hospital on a greenfield site in Elgin would cost around £25 million. It is therefore a major investment proposal. I shall certainly see that it is looked at as speedily as possible. The hon. Lady will appreciate, however, that in view of the scale of the proposal it requires detailed and careful consideration.

Is the Minister aware that, as well as the letters that he has received, I have also expressed my support for the proposals for the maternity unit at Moray? I know the area well] as I was educated there and I am pleased to support the hon. Member for Moray (Mrs. Ewing), because she has supported me in the campaign for Prestwick. She is aware that security, safety and environmental considerations are also important. Will the junior Minister ensure that his right hon. and learned Friend the Secretary of State takes account of that in the lowland airports review?

If the hon. Lady is as ingenious as the hon. Gentleman in putting her message across, it will no doubt be received with some force.

The question relates to the Moray maternity unit, on which views are held on both sides of the House. The proposal certainly enjoys considerable support in Moray. I was left in no doubt about that when I attended a public meeting with demonstrators outside who said, "Thanks for coming, Mike"—the first time I have ever encountered a demonstration welcoming me to a public meeting in another hon. Member's constituency.

Question No. 11—Sir David Steel—[Interruption.] I was thrown by that piece of ingenuity. We now come to question No. 10.

Community Charge


To ask the Secretary of State for Scotland if he will make a statement on the operation of the Debtors (Scotland) Act 1987 in relation of the recovery of poll tax arrears.

I am satisfied that the powers available to levying authorities in Scotland to collect arrears of community charge are adequate and appropriate for this purpose, as they were for the collection of arrears of domestic rates.

Having regard to the Minister's legal background, does he acknowledge that anyone surveying the poll tax legislation without realising that he would have to resort to the rigours of poinding and warrant sales is too negligent to hold office and that anyone who did know must have little social conscience? Does he accept that the poll tax legislation is designed to intimidate, embarrass and humiliate the poorer sections of our community? There will be a massive demonstration in Glasgow on 31 March. The people of Scotland are surely entitled to use people power to show their repugnance for the legislation and in the regional elections in May to eliminate the Tories and their supporters from every office in the land.

First, more than 1 million people in Scotland at present receive rebates. That is extremely important and it is especially designed to help those who are not well off. I should point out to the hon. Gentleman who feels so strongly about this matter—[Interruption.]

Order. The hon. Member for Dunfermline, West (Mr. Douglas) should refrain from shouting.

Evidently the hon. Gentleman does not want to hear the reply.

The most resented aspects of warrant sales were removed by the 1987 Act—anonymity has been brought in, certain exemptions have been made to the range of goods affected, and redemption has also been introduced—[Interruption.] The hon. Gentleman is shouting from a sedentary position, but under the community charge virtually everyone makes a contribution to local authority services. It was an absurd system to assume a link between services used and the size of a person's property—[Interruption.] The hon. Gentleman should not address me as though I am James "Buster" Douglas when I am merely the hon. Member for Edinburgh, West trying to answer his question.

The individual in a large house pays the community charge required of him by way of a contribution to local authority services, but he also pays through national taxation. I pay my taxes, but the hon. Gentleman is refusing to do so and is urging his constituents to defy the law. The hon. Gentleman is himself paid by the taxpayer, so that is grossly irresponsible.

Order. Interjections from a sedentary position lead the Minister to reply to questions which he was not asked when the hon. Member for Dunfermline, West (Mr. Douglas) was on his feet.

The Government's regulations force local authorities to recover poll tax arrears from single people claiming income support who have an income of less than £35 per week. Those claimants are the only group of debtors in Scotland not covered by the Debtors (Scotland) Act 1987. Is the Minister proud that the Government have singled out the poorest in society for the most severe poll tax treatment? Does he not understand that although he can make the poor pay the price of the poll tax now, the voters will make him pay the price of the poll tax when he next faces them?

It is for local authorities to decide what method of collection to use. In many cases it will be arrestment of earnings or of bank accounts. It could be by deduction from income support. It need not necessarily be through poinding, warrant sales or summary warrants.

Does my hon. Friend agree that the hon. Member for Dunfermline, West (Mr. Douglas) would have done better to declare an interest in the question as he is not paying his community charge? Does my hon. Friend also agree that it ill behoves any hon. Member, who has been elected to pass laws, to advocate the breaking of laws which he does not want? It makes a mockery of the whole purpose of democracy.

I agree with my hon. Friend. The hon. Member for Dunfermline, West (Mr. Douglas) is rendering a disservice to his constituents, who may end up having to pay extra on their community charge if privileged people such as Members of Parliament who are paid by the taxpayer refuse to pay their own community charge.

Commercial Rating


To ask the Secretary of State for Scotland what representations he has received from those who offer a bed and breakfast service about the effects of the commercial rating of bed and breakfast premises.

I have had numerous representations mainly from those who run small bed and breakfast establishments in rural areas. As announced yesterday, I intend to bring forward regulations to ensure that small bed and breakfast establishments with six places or fewer, or open for fewer than 100 days per year, should be treated as domestic property and thus not liable for non-domestic rates. I am consulting interested parties on details of the scheme.

That answer surely illustrates that nothing concentrates the mind of Ministers more than a question on the Order Paper. I have been in correspondence with the right hon. and learned Gentleman about this since last August, with precious little result, pointing out yet another flaw in the poll tax legislation. It would be churlish of me not to welcome what the Secretary of State has suggested. Releasing from commercial rating bed and breakfast establishments with six beds or fewer will help tourism in rural areas, but will he reconsider the 100-day limit as it makes no sense in areas which provide a modest service all the year round?

I am grateful for the welcome that the right hon. Gentleman has given to what I announced. He has made representations on the matter, as did my hon. Friend the Member for Dumfries (Sir H. Monro) and other hon. Gentlemen on both sides.

Yes, hon. Members on both sides of the. House—hon. Gentlemen and Ladies. The limit of 100 days is intended to distinguish between bed and breakfast establishments that are run essentially as commercial businesses, where non-domestic rates should apply, and bed and breakfast activity that is marginal to the main purpose of the accommodation.

Will my right hon. and learned Friend. accept that in Pitlochry, and around the highlands of Perthshire and Angus, his decision on establishments with six beds will be welcome? He knows that there has been great concern because of the impact that the legislation could have had. It would have meant the withdrawal of a facility which is essential to the tourist industry in those areas.

I was very conscious of the problems for the tourist industry in rural areas. That is why we thought it appropriate to make the changes that I have announced. They will be welcomed by the tourist industry and by many tens of thousands of people of modest means who get some additional income through bed and breakfast establishments of the kind indicated.

I am tempted to wonder whether the Secretary of State is serious. How many bed and breakfast establishments does he know of in tourist areas in Scotland which operate for fewer than 100 nights per year? Will he be suggesting to them which nine months of the year they should close? Will he police them with inspectors? Will another aspect of the poll tax be to have inspectors going round to check that bed and breakfast businesses are open for fewer than 100 nights a year? The idea is ridiculous.

Does the Minister accept that the property tax on bed-and-breakfast establishments is another Tory roof tax, as is the standard community charge on second homes? Is not the vast increase in mortgage rates the most crippling roof tax of all? Is not it Scotland's singular misfortune under his rule to have a Tory poll tax and several Tory roof taxes?

The hon. Gentleman has not done his homework on the first part of his question, or he would know that a very large number of bed-and-breakfast establishments will be exempt from non-domestic rates within the 100-day cut-off period. On the latter part of his remarks, I can only suggest that if he is interested in the welfare of his constituents he should accept that under the Labour party's roof tax proposals not only owner-occupiers, but all council tenants will pay the roof tax. I note that the hon. Gentleman nods. He will appreciate that the council tenants who suffer most will be those living in property recently renovated by local authorities so that the market value of the properties has doubled overnight.

I know that the hon. Gentleman is nervous about the unanimously hostile reaction that the Labour party has received to its roof tax proposals. That is no doubt why it has decided to put off any comparable announcement south of the border. Perhaps the hon. Gentleman is considering using Scotland as a guinea pig for the roof tax.

The provision of bed and breakfast in tourist areas is extremely important as it provides quality accommodation at reasonable prices, as is true in my constituency of Sherwood where millions of people come to visit our famous forest. Does my right hon. Friend agree that Labour plans to end derating will bring immediate hardship to those providing bed-and-breakfast accommodation in agricultural areas?

It is a feature of the Labour party's rural policy that, when it published its Scottish rural policy document last week, it did not highlight the fact that it wishes to end the derating of agricultural land. As my hon. Friend rightly said, that would devastate not only the farming communities but those who depend on the agriculture industry for the well-being of Scotland's rural areas.

British Steel


To ask the Secretary of State for Scotland when he last met the chairman of British Steel; what issues were discussed; and when he next expects to meet him.

I last met the chairman of British Steel on 26 October 1989 when we discussed matters relevant to the steel industry in Scotland.

Is the right hon. and learned Gentleman actually telling us that despite the crisis that has hit confidence among steelworkers in Lanarkshire, he has made no attempt to hold a meeting with the chairman of British Steel? That is a disgrace. Will he seek an urgent meeting with the chairman and ask why, with a current capital investment programme of £397 million, not a brown penny has been directed to Lanarkshire? Will he also ask how it can be that over the next four years, with 46 rigs to be built for the North sea requiring a new steel demand of 740,000 tonnes, British Steel can continue to place a question mark over the steelworkers in Lanarkshire?

We have had continuing contact with British Steel since last October. The hon. Gentleman's question related to an actual meeting and I gave him the correct answer. On the more substantial part of his remarks, we all share his hope that British Steel will produce new investment for steel plants in Scotland. I hope that the hon. Gentleman and his hon. Friends will work closely with those at Ravenscraig rather than distancing themselves from the general view in Scotland that through co-operative efforts the best prospects can be achieved for the future well-being of the steel industry in Scotland. The hon. Gentleman knows that his party is out of kilter with Scottish opinion and that its short-sighted approach has found no favour with the work force at Ravenscraig.

Is the Secretary of State aware that an immediate decision is pending from British Steel on its plate strategy and especially on the future of the Dalziel plate mill? Is he further aware that the modernisation of that mill is the only fully viable route by which not only the future of platemaking can be pursued economically, but a long-term future secured for other developments at Ravenscraig?

I pay tribute to the hon. Gentleman's obvious interest in this matter. I agree that the decision in favour of a new plate mill at Dalziel would be of great benefit to the long-term interests of the steel industry in Scotland. We welcome the report produced by Glasgow university last week, which put forward a commercial and not an emotional argument on why there was a good case for that investment in Scotland. We hope that British Steel will scrutinise that report and reach a judgment based on the commercial criteria which can properly be applied to such issues.

Will my right hon. and learned Friend remind the hon. Member for Glasgow, Govan (Mr. Sillars), who believes in independence in Europe, that there is a European prohibition on state aid for primary steel making? Will he further confirm that British Steel has made it absolutely clear that in the event of its no longer wishing to operate Ravenscraig it will offer the plant for sale to another buyer?

It is certainly true that the European Community forbids any member Government or member state to give taxpayers' support to new investment in primary steel producing. My hon. Friend is also correct that when the industry was privatised British Steel made it clear that if at any time it had no further interest in its assets, particularly at Ravenscraig in Scotland, it would consider an alternative offer for the acquisition of those assets.

The Secretary of State has made it clear that he had a good deal of sympathy with the arguments in Glasgow university's report, which was prepared for the Strathclyde regional council, about the possibility of developing the plate mill at Dalziel. Will he say a little more about how he intends to progress that matter? The Minister of State was reported in the Scottish press on Tuesday as saying that

"he expected to be in contact with BS executives 'in due course'."
Does that mean that Ministers will be personally involved in those meetings? At what level of British Steel does he expect the meetings to take place? Can he also say something about the time scale because there is a worry that "in due course" may suggest an over-leisurely approach when in fact decisions by British Steel may be imminent. That is a matter of great urgency. I hope that the Secretary of State will be specific about what he intends to do.

I understand the force of the hon. Gentleman's question. We believe that it is important that British Steel should be aware of the Scottish Office view on these important matters. British Steel's future plate mill strategy is of importance to the Government. I certainly wish to ensure that, well before any decision is reached by British Steel, it has the views not only of the Glasgow university report but of everyone, including the Scottish Office, about the merits of the various options under consideration.

Drug Education


To ask the Secretary of State for Scotland if he will make a statement on drug education in schools.

Programmes of drug education are undertaken by all education authorities in Scotland. The Scottish Education Department has collaborated in the production of curricular material for schools, and makes a specific grant available for the in-service training of teachers in health education, including education about drugs.

That is welcome news, but can my hon. Friend reassure the House that particular help will be given to those schools in areas where drug misuse is greatest—for example in the Edinburgh, Leith constituency? Has he been in touch with the organisation called Life Education Centres which does a marvellous job in parts of England but which, to the best of my knowledge, has not yet done anything in Scotland?

I know of my hon. Friend's interest in these matters. Indeed, he is chairman of the all-party drug misuse group. I am aware of the good work done by the organisation to which he referred. There are several organisations in Scotland that take a close interest in these matters, and in the Scottish Office there is the Scottish health education group. We ensure that a number of initiatives are targeted at particular age groups, and packages of materials are made available to all secondary schools in Scotland.

Does the Minister accept that drug abuse and addiction are connected with high unemployment? If we look at any place in Scotland and Britain we find that that is the case. Will the Minister come with me to my constituency and visit the group that he mentioned?

I do not think that the hon. Gentleman's conclusion, relating drug abuse to high unemployment, is right. It is important, however, that we target our campaigns as effectively as possible. As part of that, we are developing teacher in-service training, on which we have spent about £600,000 over the past four years.

Is my hon. Friend aware of my correspondence with the Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Scotland with responsibility for health about the concern of the drugs advisory committee on Grampian health board that the area has not been selected as a priority area for new drug prevention schemes? Although fortunately the area does not face so immediate or great a problem as some other centres of population, does my hon. Friend agree that money spent on prevention before the problem manifests itself is much better than money spent afterwards on treatment?

I certainly agree with my right hon. Friend. All education authorities in Scotland have nominated a senior official to co-ordinate these matters. I hope that that is happening effectively in Grampian, as elsewhere. I shall look into the matter.

Community Charge


To ask the Secretary of State for Scotland how many extra staff have been employed by regional and island councils in Scotland to deal with the administration and collection of the poll tax.

No information is held centrally on the number of extra staff employed by local authorities on community charge work.

After the Government's hypocritical and, indeed, near-hysterical response to Labour's alternative, will the Minister accept that the collection of the poll tax in Scotland has involved a scandalous misuse of scarce public resources? Will he concede that Labour's alternative will be simpler, fairer and much cheaper to collect?

The extra cost, as compared with the collection of rates, is £14·5 million, but we consider that justified in terms of greater fairness and accountability. With the roof tax there would be an army of valuers, assessors, monitors and statisticians. I agree entirely with the hon. Member for Dunfermline, West (Mr. Douglas), who said in The Scotsman that the

"Labour party policy document on the roof tax must rank high in bidding for the top prize for confusion and obscurantism".

Storm Damage (Government Assistance)

3.32 pm

I beg to ask leave to move the Adjournment of the House, under Standing Order No. 20, for the purpose of discussing a specific and important matter that should have urgent consideration, namely,

"the time limit on Government assistance towards storm damage costs."
The matter is specific, in that it refers to the terms of the Bellwin scheme, under which, after councils have met a certain threshold cost of damage repair, the Government provide 75 per cent. of the further costs. We all know the limitations: many things that we think should be covered are not—for example, the 4 million lost trees. There is no help with replanting trees or with homes that have been engulfed, and pensioners receive no help with rebuilding fences and walls.,

Today I am concerned only with the time limits of the scheme. Under the Bellwin scheme, except in north Wales, only work completed by 31 March this year qualifies for Government assistance. Even if the damage took place on 30 March, the repairs would have to be completed by the 31st. Many areas in all parts of the country have suffered from the recent storm chaos. Homes have been engulfed by floods; there has been severe damage to buildings, sea defences and communications. We cannot be sure that we will not face more such damage in the next couple of weeks.

The matter is urgent because councils are already at their wits' end trying to complete January's repairs. Now they have been hit by these most recent storms, when their own direct labour organisations and the independent contractors are already tied up trying to deal with previous remedial work. Councils have only four weeks from Saturday to find contractors, negotiate contracts and complete the work.

It is not possible to comply with their arbitrary deadline. Storms do not tidily occur well before the end of the financial year, so that full cost of uncompleted work could fall on next year's poll tax payers. Councils and victims of the storms need this arbitrary and unrealistic deadline lifted, and we should debate the matter urgently.

The right hon. Member for Swansea, West (Mr. Williams) asks leave to move the Adjournment of the House for the purpose of discussing a specific and important matter that he believes should have urgent consideration, namely,

"the time limit on Government assistance towards storm damage costs."
As the right hon. Member knows, under Standing Order No. 20 I have to announce my decision without giving reasons to the House. I have listened with care to what he has said on this matter, but, as he knows, the decision that I have to take is whether to give the matter precedence over the business set down for today or tomorrow. I regret that in this case the matter that he has raised does not meet the requirements of the Standing Order and I therefore cannot submit his application to the House.

Points Of Order

On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. You will have noticed in today's Hansard a written answer by the Under-Secretary of State for Scotland, the hon. Member for Edinburgh, West (Lord James Douglas-Hamilton) in reply to a question from me in relation to possible local income tax rates in Scotland. I received that answer at 7·15 last night, after leaving a Committee. I know that it was not available on the board at 6 o'clock because I took other mail from the board at that time. I have here a news release from the Scottish Conservative party in the name of Mr. Brian Meek, the leader of the Conservative group on Lothian regional council. It starts by saying:

"Commenting on the approximate rates of local income tax released today".
That clearly relates to the question and answer that are in Hansard today and which I received at 7·15 last night. The press release is timed just after 4 o'clock yesterday afternoon.

It is quite clear that the Scottish Conservative party and Mr. Brian Meek were given before I got it the information that was meant for me. That is a serious breach of parliamentary etiquette. It is not the way in which Ministers should act.

It also raises the more important constitutional issue of the very worrying relationship between the Scottish Office press department and the Tory party press office in Scotland. While a mistake may have been made on this occasion, it could only have been made if the press office in the Scottish Office gave special privileges to the Tory party in Scotland that it does not give to any other political party in Scotland or to any organisation there. I should be grateful for any help and guidance that you can give me on this matter, Mr. Speaker.

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Scotland
(Lord James Douglas-Hamilton)

Further to that point of order, Mr. Speaker. The hon. Member for Glasgow, Cathcart (Mr. Maxton) is correct in thinking that a mistake was made yesterday. I am glad to repeat to the House the apology that I have already made to the hon. Gentleman. There was a breakdown in communications. It was believed that the written question had been answered and that the information was in the public domain. I therefore very much regret that the written answer did not arrive on the board until 6.45pm last night and at the Library at 6.30 pm. I shall take steps to ensure that this mistake is not repeated.

Order. I am not certain after that apology whether there is much more to be said.

Further to the point of order, Mr. Speaker. I am not making something out of nothing. I am grateful to the Under-Secretary of State for his apology. He made it in personal terms which I entirely accept. However, I am genuinely worried about the possible repetition and what is suggested about the methods that are used. It would be in the interests of everyone if we accepted the principle that a written answer is the property of the hon. Member who put down the question until the time that the answer is in his hands. We want an assurance that the Scottish Office will look closely at its methods and make very sure—cast-iron copper-bottomed sure—that the Scottish Conservative party is not getting the kind of flier that clearly occurred in this case.

On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. I sought yesterday at Question Time to catch your eye on five questions but was unsuccessful. Having listened to your response to the hon. Member for Paisley, South (Mr. Buchan) when he disrupted questions today with points of order, may I take it that, if I had disrupted questions yesterday, you would have given me advice as to the question on which I might be called?

The hon. Lady is being a little too sophisticated. She obviously does not come very often into Scottish questions, during which there is a good deal of chat between both sides of the House.

On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. I am glad that the Leader of the House is in his place, because this point concerns the transfer of questions from the Scottish Office to other Departments. It is difficult to understand what is going on. You were kind enough to call my hon. Friends the Members for Greenock and Port Glasgow (Dr. Godman) and for Glasgow, Shettleston (Mr. Marshall), who had questions on the Order Paper for answer today. My hon. Friend the Member for Shettleston tabled the following question:

"To ask the Secretary of State for Scotland, how many old age pensioners in Scotland"—

Order. Is this not just an extension of Question Time? [HON. MEMBERS: "No."] Order. I say to the House and to the hon. Member for Lancaster (Dame E. Kellett-Bowman) that I am constantly being urged to speed up the rate of progress in Question Time, and I try to do that, in the interests of those who have questions high on the Order Paper. I cannot possibly expect to get in every hon. Member who wishes to be called.

The point that I am making, Mr. Speaker, is about the transfer of this question by the Scottish Office to another Department. If I repeat the question to you, I think that you will agree that it is pertinent to the Scottish Office and has nothing to do with any other Department. It was:

"To ask the Secretary of State for Scotland how many old age pensioners in Scotland are liable to pay only 20 per cent. of the poll tax."
That question was transferred. Neither I nor my hon. Friends understand that.

That decision was conveyed to my hon. Friend the Member for Shettleston in a letter from somebody called Catherine McGoldrick. That is a highly improper practice. The question was in order and should have been dealt with by the Scottish Office. It is not acceptable for Scottisl. Members to be treated in this way when other questions are being tabled by English Members.

Order. The hon. Gentleman has had his say. This is not a matter for me to understand, either. I do not transfer questions—that is a matter for the Ministers concerned. I am not responsible for such things.

On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. Notwithstanding what you said about Scottish Question Time, because of the numerous points of order from Opposition Members, we reached only question No. 14, which is unfair for those in the first 25. Will you make it clear to the Opposition, Mr. Speaker, that all points of order will be taken after questions, not during them?

Points of order are taken at the correct time, which is after applications under Standing Order No. 20. Points of order arising during Question Time must be taken then if they need my immediate attention. I am sure that the House will accept however that, in a way, they are self-policing.

On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. I ask you to reflect further on the inevitable difficulties caused to our procedures if, as is the case, a junior Minister in the Scottish Office is also chairman of the Conservative party in Scotland, because he is covering the same geographical area. In those circumstances, what confidence can hon. Members have that other political parties in Scotland are being treated equitably with the Conservative party by the Scottish Office?

On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. This relates to written questions. An interesting suggestion was made—that written questions should be the property of the hon. Member who has tabled the question until such time as that hon. Member has possession of the question. You will be aware that hon. Members often do not pick up written questions until late in the day, and that questions are also supplied to the media. Therefore, before making a decision on that suggestion one must recognise that that system would not work because of the way that this place operates, and consequently that is a request which cannot be honoured.

The point that was raised was about the availability of the question—that the question should have been available at 3.30.

On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. You are aware that I would not raise a point of order with you unless it arose out of a serious intervention, as was the case at Question Time. It was suggested that I had an interest to declare. Normally I would have brushed that aside, but in view of the strictures levelled by a senior Committee of the House on the hon. Member for Winchester (Mr. Browne) and the fact that our proceedings, especially at Question Time, arc well televised and noted by the electors of Scotland, I wish wholeheartedly to declare my interest, which is——

Order. It is not necessary for interests to be declared during Question Time.

My integrity was impugned by a Conservative Member. I am happy to declare that I am withholding payment of the poll tax, as is Mrs. Douglas. We are doing so in the interests of standing beside those who cannot pay.

Order. What I say to the hon. Member—I say it to the whole House—is that if we have supplementary questions from a sedentary position, Ministers tend to answer them, and that delays our proceedings.

On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. During Question Time, the hon. Member for Falkirk, West (Mr. Canavan) raised the question of the treatment of defaulters under the community charge. He is a well publicised defaulter. Should he not have declared his interest?

Ballot For Notices Of Motions For Friday 16 March

Members successful in the ballot were:

  • Mr. Timothy Raison
  • Mr. William Hague
  • Mr. Phillip Oppenheim.
  • European Community Documents


    That European Community Document No. 9903/89 on accounts of insurance undertakings be referred to a Standing Committee on European Community Documents.—[Mr. Fallon.]

    Security Service Act 1989 (Amendment)

    3.47 pm

    I beg to move,

    That leave be given to bring in a Bill to amend the Security Service Act 1989 to provide that a complaint may be made to the Security Service Tribunal in respect of the actions of the Service whether or not the complainant has been the subject of inquiries by the Service; to widen the orders of reference of the Tribunal to include investigation of complaints about any activity of the Service, provided that the Tribunal shall be satisfied that such complaints are neither frivolous nor vexatious; to require that reports on certain categories of investigation shall be laid before Parliament; to give Members of Parliament a right of access to the Tribunal in matters directly affecting them or their constituents; and for connected purposes.
    The long preamble to the Bill represents an honest, serious stab at lessening the chances of the recurrence in future of what generically we can call the Colin Wallace affair. In plain language, an enhanced social service tribunal might act as some deterrent to the kind of thing that happened to the Wilson and Heath Governments in the 1970s—set out by Wilson in his evidence to the Royal Commission on the press in May 1977—happening to a Kinnock or, for that matter, to a Baker, a Patten or a Heseltine Government in the 1990s.

    I have never indulged in blanket criticism of the security services. The late Sir Maurice Oldfield and others have been friends but, equally, prima facie it seems that elements of the security services have run amok. The proposal in my Bill is about making all elements of the security services accountable.

    The tribunal route to accountability has its attractions. The tribunal is a filter. It can refuse to countenance the frivolous or vexatious. Equally, when confronted by a book such as Paul Foot's "Who Framed Colin Wallace?"—or, in my opinion, Captain Fred Holroyd's "War Without Honour"—the tribunal would surely say, "It is our job to look at this stuff properly." The cases should not be time-limited; the tribunal should be able to investigate as far back as it deems necessary.

    The tribunal is already in existence, so I am not suggesting setting up some expensive new apparatus. Its members are men and women with the necessary familiarity with the security services and their modus operandi. Lord Justice Sir Murray Stuart-Smith, Mr. Justice Simon Brown, Sir Richard Gaskell, last year's president of the Law Society, and Sheriff John McInnes are all familiar with security matters. In the Wallace case, a tribunal should call Sir Percy Craddock, chairman of the Joint Intelligence Committee, and Sir Christopher Curwen, security co-ordinator, to ask the reasons for their advice. It should also call Mr. Dennis Payne.

    The tribunal members are presumably considered sufficiently reliable to handle delicate and highly classified information. Assuming—and it is a whopper of an assumption—that the House of Commons really wants to find out the truth of what occurred in the Wallace affair, I am not enchanted by the alternatives. You yourself judge, Mr. Speaker—rightly, in my view—that the Privileges Committee is not a suitable body to conduct an investigation of what happened a quarter of a century ago and 15 years ago, and the subsequent concealment.

    Should any hon. Member be interested, I can explain further—from personal experience of being hauled before the Privileges Committee and questioned by the late Duncan Sandys, Elwyn Jones and others—why the Privileges Committee should not become involved in a Wallace-type affair. I can also explain from personal experience, having given evidence before the Franks committee for one hour and 55 minutes, why I do not believe that such a committee—the committee considering the Falklands consisted of the Lords Barber, Lever and Watkinson, Sir Patrick Nairne and my right hon. Friend the Member for Morley and Leeds. South (Mr. Rees)—is the ideal set-up.

    At one time, I supposed that the Security Commission was a good vehicle for an investigation, but a friendly letter from its distinguished chairman and Law Lord, Lord Griffiths of Govilon, made it clear that he could act only on a reference from the Prime Minister. The House can judge how likely it is that that would be forthcoming. As for the type of inquiry held under David Calcutt QC, I heard the master of Magdalene college, Cambridge, say on the radio that he would stick precisely to his terms of reference, and that only the decision of Parliament could widen its scope.

    Nor am I happy about the investigation by the Select Committee on Defence. Select Committees have many virtues, but politicians who want to keep their political noses clean with colleagues—of any and every party—are not the most impartial of investigative inquiry practitioners when the political chips may come down. None of us who heard it in the Committee Room will quickly forget the supercilious stonewalling of Sir Leon Brittan when he was asked direct questions by members of the Defence Select Committee.

    As for parliamentary questions, whether on account of the Osmotherly rules or plain bloody-minded obstruction, the cat-and-mouse saga on Wallace suffered over the past three years by my hon. Friend the Member for Brent, East (Mr. Livingstone) and myself is a disgrace to parliamentary democracy. All we ask for are some truthful and candid answers, but the resolution of the issue by means of parliamentary questions is about as likely as a quick solution to Jarndyce v. Jarndyce.

    Let me give some examples of the advantages that a tribunal would have. Were Army intelligence services and MI5 really unaware of homosexual abuses at the Kincora boys home before 1980? Did General Leng order his intelligence staff to alert the police as early as 1974, after they had shown him a dossier naming the men and boys involved, and, if so, what happened? Those are some questions that the tribunal could ask; I share the widely reported distaste of Sir Michael Quinlan at the fact that nothing was done.

    The tribunal could ask whether Colin Wallace's document of 8 November 1974 was a forgery, as suggested by the Hughes report. I understand that Judge Hughes is very embarrassed about that. It could also ask whether the Prime Minister's office is vulnerable to burglary, which is not a trivial question. On 24 July last year I asked the right hon. Lady:
    "how many documents were received in relation to Colin Wallace and sent by or on behalf of Colin Wallace to No. 10 Downing street for onward transmission to the Hughes inquiry into the Kincora boys' home; how many were sent on to Judge Hughes; and what are the reasons for the difference between the two figures."
    The Prime Minister replied:
    "A file of papers relating to Mr. Cohn Wallace was submitted to my office on 1 November 1984, but was returned to the sender on 24 November. No complete record of the documents was retained. No question arose at that stage of the papers being intended for onward transmission to the Hughes inquiry. When it was subsequently requested that the papers should be sent to the inquiry, such documents as had been copied and retained were duly made available." — [Official Report, 24 July 1989, Vol. 157, c. 439.]
    The tribunal should be empowered to examine such questions as whether that short answer contains three grave errors of fact.

    First, in his letter of 30 January to the hon. Member for Arundel (Mr. Marshall), the Minister of State for the Armed Forces conceded that the Ministry of Defence "have no reason" to doubt that Mr. Wallace's assertions that the file was not returned to him and that a copy of the file was returned. I do not want to get thrown out for had parliamentary language, but if I were to say the category that that would come under, I should be suspended for five days.

    Secondly, that means that the original was retained, so a complete record of the document was retained. A similar comment applies to that.

    Thirdly, we now hear from several Ministers that no documents of any importance were made available to the Hughes inquiry. Indeed, Judge Hughes made it clear that he did not see any documents from the Prime Minister's office.

    What happened to the originals of those documents? The Minister of State for the Armed Forces said that no explanation has come to light. Governments really ought not to lose documents of that sensitivity. A tribunal such as I suggest could examine whether the files were stolen from No. 10 Downing street; and if so, by whom and for what reason. The copy which was returned to M r. Wallace's friend, Mr. Holroyd, was passed to his Member of Parliament, the hon. Member for Southend, East (M r. Taylor). The hon. Gentleman subsequently reported to the police that the file has gone missing after being locked tip in his House of Commons office. It reappeared mysteriously several days later, 30 miles away in the hon. Gentleman's constituency office.

    All those matters should be looked at. When Monday's issue of The Times reported that the Cabinet Office is solemnly engaged in an examination of the bizarre allegation that MI5 has been using premium bond cheques, supposedly issued by ERNIE for paying freelance agents, it is really high time that the House of Commons did something.

    My proposal is sensible, cautious and practical. An honest tribunal of distinguished people and capable lawyers should be able to look at the Wallace case, the Holroyd case and, if necessary, the extraordinary business of ERNIE paying out money—as printed on page 2 of The Times, which is supposedly a major paper of record—and to find out what is going on in this country. My proposal for a tribunal is democratic; it is not unduly expensive, it is practical and effective.

    Question put and agreed to.

    Security Service Act 1989 (Amendment)

    Mr. Tam Dalyell, supported by Mr. Norman Buchan, Mr. Terry Davis, Mr. Don Dixon, Mr. Derek Fatchett, Mr. Martin Flannery, Mr. Doug Hoyle, Mr. Ken Livingstone, Mr. Kevin McNamara, Ms. Dawn Primarolo, Mr. Chris Smith and Mr. Robert N. Wareing, presented a Bill to amend the Security Service Act 1989 to provide that a complaint may be made to the Security Service Tribunal in respect of the actions of the Service whether or not the complainant has been the subject of inquiries by the Service; to widen the orders of reference of the Tribunal to include investigation of complaints about any activity of the Service, provided that the Tribunal shall be satisfied that such complaints are neither frivolous nor vexatious; to require that reports on certain categories of investigation shall be laid before Parliament; to give Members of Parliament a right of access to the Tribunal in matters directly affecting them or their constituents; and for connected purposes: And the same was read the First time; and ordered to be read a Second time upon Friday 20 April and to be printed. [Bill 86.]

    Royal Air Force

    Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.— [Mr. Fallon.]

    3.58 pm

    Nineteen-ninety is the year of the 50th anniversary of the Battle of Britain. Throughout the year, in different parts of the nation, there will be formal commemorations of those events of 1940, culminating in a major parade and fly-past over London in September. In these circumstances it is a particular privilege to be able to make my own tribute to the courage, determination and skills of the Royal Air Force, past and present and the House will carry that anniversary in the forefront of its mind during our debate this afternoon.

    I suggest two reasons in particular. The first is the uncertainties in the international situation. For the first time in that period—indeed for longer, because it was clear from the time of the Munich crisis who our enemies were and where the battles would be fought—the familiar certainties of a clearly identified threat, a traditional confrontation, appear to have diminished.

    The policies that the West has collectively pursued, and the international institutions that we have developed, have guaranteed us peace and security and freedom and prosperity. The people of eastern Europe now want to share our success. The challenge facing the West is how to accommodate their aspirations without jeopardising our own achievements and, above all, our security.

    While the apparatus of Communism and of the Warsaw pact is disintegrating, we retain firm foundations on which to build. We have robust and healthy institutions—the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation, the conference on security and co-operation in Europe, the Western European Union and the European Community—within which we can co-ordinate our work towards a stable and lasting security order in Europe.

    Political and military changes must go hand in hand. The current negotiations on conventional armed forces in Europe are of particular importance. They are an indication of the good faith of the East in reducing its overwhelming superiority in conventional armaments, and a CFE agreement will be a major step towards the new order that we are seeking.

    The second reason is even more relevant. As everyone knows, the battle of Britain was a very close-run thing. There were two points when the attrition rate of aircraft and skilled aircrew was such that our survival—and thus the survival of western democracy as a whole—was in jeopardy. That crisis can be directly linked to the neglect—founded in optimism, in parsimony and in political cowardice, for some of which the House of Commons cannot escape blame—of the early 1930s. [HON. MEMBERS: "It was a Tory Government!"] Certainly; I do not deny that. With that recollection in our minds, I am sure that the House would agree that we must—with the Royal Air Force of all the services—guard against a repetition of those mistakes.

    I propose to refer, first, to the operational achievements of the RAF in the past year, then to discuss the procurement aspect for the future, and finally to touch on certain personnel matters.

    The Royal Air Force continues to play a full part in the United Kingdom's military commitments outside the NATO area, with forces stationed in Belize, Cyprus, the Falkland Islands and Hong Kong. Aircraft of the air transport forces maintain regular support to those garrisons.

    In addition to those continuing commitments, Nimrod maritime patrol aircraft have deployed to Oman on a series of training exercises with the Sultan of Oman's armed forces.

    In March last year, the United Kingdom was asked by the United Nations, at very short notice, to send personnel to Namibia. A six-man air operations team was dispatched, and, for the first three months of its deployment, it helped oversee the arrival of military and civil aircraft bringing in the various national contingents and their equipment and supplies.

    This year, Royal Air Force aircraft will again be deploying to the far east to take part in a major exercise under the five-power defence arrangements. Those arrangements bring United Kingdom forces together with those of Malaysia. Singapore, Australia and New Zealand. Royal Air Force participation will include Tornado F3 and GR1 aircraft, together with tanker support, and underlines our continued commitment to the arrangements and the importance that we attach to the area.

    In addition, the RAF has played a significant role in disaster relief. Following the passage of hurricane Hugo through the eastern Caribbean, it was involved in the provision of urgent assistance to a number of the Leeward Islands which had suffered damage. RAF Hercules shuttled over 49,000 lbs of freight and 400 passengers from Antigua to Montserrat and St. Kitts. In addition, those aircraft carried personnel of the Bermuda defence force to the British Virgin Islands to assist in the restoration of essential services there.

    The Royal Air Force has also taken part in relief work in the United Kingdom following the January gales. RAF Hercules performed the particularly valuable task of carrying electricity-generating equipment to parts of the country left without power. Since Monday, when a sea wall was breached at Towyn, north Wales, four RAF search and rescue helicopters have airlifted 75 people from the town. RAF mountain rescue teams have also joined the police in helping more than 500 people to safety.

    The RAF continues to play a vital role in more traditional search and rescue operations at home and abroad. In 1989, some 900 people were rescued in the United Kingdom alone. Some hon. Members, especially my hon. Friend the Member for Devon, North (Mr. Speller)—who is not in his place—have expressed concern at the recent redeployment of military SAR assets. As we expected, coverage over the country as a whole, particularly at night and in bad weather, has been improved. I am glad that these misgivings have proved unfounded.

    The House will wish to congratulate the RAF on its achievements over the past weekend in going to the aid of injured passengers aboard the stricken Cypriot ferry the Baroness M. Following a call from the ship to the Cyprus marine radio station, the RAF rescue co-ordination centre in Cyprus scrambled three Wessex helicopters of No. 84 squadron and a visiting Nimrod from No. 201 squadron. Fifteen casualties were winched from the ship and taken to Larnaca international airport for onward transport to hospital.

    Can my hon. Friend confirm whether the RAF has been able to establish the nationality of the gunboat that attacked this unarmed ferry on the high seas? Obviously that information would be of some interest to the House, not least from the point of view of the safety of other shipping in the area.

    My understanding is that the gunboat carried Syrian markings.

    The year 1989 was a special one for the Red Arrows. It was the team's silver jubilee year and it culminated in an open day air show, held in October at Scampton. Royal Air Force aircraft and display teams from France, Italy, Portugal, Spain and Switzerland, as well as the Red Arrows, displayed their skills to an enthusiastic crowd, some of whom had come especially for the event from distant parts of the world. On those occasions when it is possible to send the Red Arrows abroad, they act as a marvellous demonstration of the quality of British aircraft as well as the excellence of the pilots who fly them. Such displays have a wider role to play in enhancing British prestige and trading prospects in those places.

    The hon. Gentleman has outlined a background of a diminution in international tension. Would it not be ironic if that resulted in an increase in low-flying sorties over rural areas as many of these aircraft are relocated from German air space to United Kingdom air space? Does the hon. Gentleman accept that the present level of low flying in the rural areas of Scotland is unacceptable as it is, and that any increase in Scotland is out of the question?

    I am well aware that low flying is a matter of great concern to a number of hon. Members, especially those whose constituencies are directly affected. I propose to touch on that matter. If the hon. Gentleman is not satisfied with my comments, I shall refer to it again, if the House grants me leave.

    The House will be aware of the importance that we attach to the safety of all display flying. Last year, we completed a comprehensive review of military flying regulations aimed at ensuring that the RAF would continue to entertain the public as safely and professionally as possible. None the less, every year tragically sees a number of major accidents involving RAF aircraft, in some of which some service men are killed.

    As the House well knows, every accident is exhaustively investigated, and we make every effort to ensure that the lessons learned minimise the risk of recurrence. There is no accident level that we regard as acceptable; we are always striving to make military flying safer. But we also have to ensure that our aircrew receive the experience and training that they need to perform their operational roles. Well-trained, experienced pilots are an essential element in enhancing flight safety.

    I am sure that the House will be pleased to learn that 1989 was an exceptionally safe year for the RAF in terms of both the absolute number of major aircraft accidents and the more significant measure of the major accident rate per 10,000 flying hours—0·31. This confirms the long-term trend in major RAF accidents, which has been downwards for many years.

    Before my hon. Friend leaves the matter of safety, will he comment on the conclusions of his review? Does he agree, that it is dangerous for aircraft to carry out tight turns over crowded areas, and that such turns can better be carried out over runways?

    If the crews are properly trained and fly at the highest levels of skill and competence, as we believe they do, it does not make any difference whether a tight turn is carried out over open country or an urban area. There is nothing inherently dangerous about a tight turn, providing that the proper procedures and skills are deployed. I am confident that they always would be deployed.

    I am amazed at the Minister's answer to his hon. Friend. I understood that the RAF had issued instructions to its display teams that they should not do tight turns over crowded areas and that the RAF recognised the danger of such operations where there is a likelihood, as in Ramstein in Germany, that a plane could plough into the crowds and kill. Would he check on that? I thought that the RAF had issued such an order.

    Aircraft do not plough into crowds simply because they are making a tight turn. Several factors are involved in a failure of a catastrophic nature such as the hon. Gentleman cited. Every accident is subject to a full inquiry and has different characteristics, although we deplore all accidents.

    My noble Friend the Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State met the newly formed all-party group on low flying last autumn. The Public Accounts Committee last week considered a report from the Comptroller and Auditor General. My Department has co-operated fully with the extensive inquiry conducted by the Select Committee on Defence. We await the outcome of these investigations and will certainly give them the most careful consideration.

    I should prefer it if the hon. Member developed his arguments in the course of his own speech, if he catches your eye, Mr. Speaker.

    I have concluded my survey of operational matters and I should prefer to move on to the procurement aspect. I shall listen carefully to what the hon. Gentleman says if he proposes to remain for the rest of the debate.

    As the House knows, the RAF has several major programmes of equipment modernisation under way.

    The Minister said earlier when he did not reply to my intervention that he would make some substantive comments on low flying. His remarks were so insubstantial that many hon. Members may have missed them.

    I explained that the Department has been co-operating fully with an extensive inquiry. When the outcome of those investigations is to hand, we shall give it our consideration and a further statement will be made.

    On 23 January, in reply to the hon. Member for Edinburgh, East (Mr. Strang), I made a series of points on the European fighter aircraft—in particular the selection of the radar. I should like to reinforce what I said then and, in particular, reaffirm our whole-hearted commitment to the project.

    An effective air defence is essential for the security of the United Kingdom. The EFA will be, in the late 1990s and beyond, the leading air defence fighter of its generation. Work on the prototype aircraft is proceeding well, as is the development of the engine and the selection of equipments. The key to EFA is its ability to detect, track, identify and attack hostile aircraft. The radar must meet all our specifications, however exacting. Continuing and fruitful discussions on this subject between my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Defence and his German counterpart last month give me confidence that a decision is near to hand.

    I shall complete my remarks on this subject before I give way.

    I share the concern of many that the Ferranti Defence Systems' ECR90 radar should receive the recognition that it deserves. To this end, the anticipated acquisition of FDS by GEC should dispel any reservations our partners may have had concerning Ferranti's financial viability. In doing so, the competing bids will be considered on their respective merits.

    To bring about this restructuring in so short a time was a remarkable achievement well illustrating the flexibility and the capacity for long-term strategic thinking by British industry. This has been widely welcomed by hon. Members representing the constituents concerned.

    On the question of Ferranti, is not it outrageous that Sir Derek Alun-Jones, the chairman of Ferranti, should receive something like £0·5 million—I believe that it is £497,000—in a golden handshake when the track record of that company over the past 12 months is appalling, especially in relation to the company's acquisitions? Is not it the taxpayer who ultimately picks up the bill for this, because the taxpayer is Ferranti's primary customer?

    The extent to which Ferranti shareholders, who have seen the value of their investment decline by over two thirds in the past year, share this view is for others to judge.

    The only sour note in this affair was struck by the hon. Member for Clackmannan (Mr. O'Neill) who searched desperately round, to the considerable embarrassment—I suspect—of some of his Scottish colleagues for grounds on which to oppose and criticise. The actual phrase he used was "dirty dealing", and he did his best to spread alarm and despondency with various accusations, all of them shown to be quite groundless. I shall look forward to his comments, if he feels inclined to make any, on how he sees the present situation—

    I said that at the time, when I felt that it was justified in the sense that the disclosures trickled out and there was a lot of anxiety and many legitimate questions that had to be answered. In the main, those questions have been answered in the discussions and meetings that we have had with Mr. Dunn of Ferranti and with Lord Weinstock.

    I and others have been unreserved in our satisfaction at the outcome of that extremely worrying period which, given the Minister of State's characteristically languid approach to these matters, filled us with great alarm at the time. We now recognise that, in difficult circumstances, this is probably the best possible deal that could have been achieved. We have had assurances from Lord Weinstock, to which we shall seek to keep him, and we are happy to have that opportunity.

    I am flattered by the hon. Gentleman's reference to my style and am gratified by his apology.

    The first Harrier GR5 squadron is now fully operational at RAF Wittering and was declared to NATO at the end of last year. The second, at RAF Gutersloh, is due to be declared later this year. This aircraft has a greatly improved capability and performance over the Harrier GR3, which it is replacing. Delivery of the first Harrier GR7, the night attack version of the GR5, is expected later this year. All Harrier GR5s will eventually be converted to GR7 standard. In addition, we intend, subject to the satisfactory resolution of contractual and other details, to order 14 new Harrier two-seat training aircraft. Those aircraft, known as the T-10, will meet the rigorous training requirements of the Harrier GR5 and GR7. They will also have a full operational capability.

    Progress continues to be made on the enhancement—

    Has the Minister any idea of the costs of the conversion of the GR5 to GR7? As a Minister, he will know better than anyone that such conversions can be technically difficult and extremely costly, and that they are not quite as simple as they might seem.

    There is a note of it. As this is a point on which the House will wish to be enlightened, if the hon. Gentleman will remain in the Chamber until the conclusion of the debate, I shall certainly give that information then.

    May I say how welcome it is that the Royal Air Force is to acquire the Harrier T10, so that the training aeroplane is now compatible with the GR5 and the GR7, which the crews will have to fly? Are the GR3s to be retained for service in Belize, or will Belize have an all-GR5 and GR7 force?

    I think that, in the fullness of time, it will be an all-GR5 and GR7 force, but plainly that cannot happen overnight.

    Progress continues to be made on the enhancement of our air-to-air refuelling capability and the replacement of the aging Victor tanker fleet. Air-to-air refuelling increases the operational range and endurance of combat aircraft, allowing them to be deployed more flexibly. I can report that contracts have recently been placed for the conversion of a further 13 VC10 aircraft to a tanker role.

    The Royal Air Force utility EH101 helicopter programme is currently in the project definition phase. This involves examining in detail the RAF's foreseen requirement against a range of options and establishing the costs and risks associated with each. The results of this work will provide the basis for decisions on the next stage of the programme.

    I note that the right hon. Member for Yeovil (Mr. Ashdown), who frequently questions Ministers on this subject, is not in his place. I recognise, of course, that Wednesday is very late in the week for an SLD Member of Parliament to be in the House of Commons. I am sure that we all appreciate the urgency of the right hon. Gentleman's commitments outside.

    Can my hon. Friend indicate when a decision on the EH101 utility version for the Air Force is likely to be taken?

    I cannot give such an indication. We do not yet have enough information on which to base a decision. I am quite certain that it would be wrong to make a decision before we are entirely satisfied as to the specification and whether it meets our requirements.

    The RAF attaches special importance to the morale and well-being of the Air Cadet Force.

    I should like to put a point to the Minister before he leaves the question of procurement. He has not said anything about the LAH evaluation programme on which he has embarked and on which, he will agree, I have pressed him more than once. Of course, I understand why he is not yet in a position to say when he expects to complete that study. Can he say a word about the matter now? He will know better than most people that recent developments have pointed up the importance of the mobility factor to the Royal Air Force.

    The hon. Gentleman is entirely right. The LAH is a subject to which, with the whole question of balance in helicopter mixes in the battlefield, we are devoting great attention. My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State has already said that a variety of broader deployment options and procurement options are being considered. Certainly, this programme, which, as the hon. Gentleman knows, has a strong collaborative element, must be given very careful consideration in the context of an altered look at the whole question of the tactical deployment of helicopters.

    I am delighted to report that we have recently placed orders for 53 modern gliders, to be known as Vigilant. Deliveries are scheduled to begin next month and to be completed by the end of this year. The Vigilants are self-launching gliders and will replace the existing fleet of Venture motor gliders, which are nearing the end of their useful life. This modernisation programme maintains the size of the glider fleet at over 140 aircraft and will ensure improved availability of gliders for student use.

    The Bloodhound mark 2 air defence missile system has been in service with the Royal Air Force since 1964. Although Bloodhound continues to give useful service, it is becoming more difficult to maintain. There are no plans to withdraw Bloodhound from service immediately. However, to ensure more cost-effective management of the Bloodhound force into the future, we plan this year to concentrate it at only two locations. These will be RAF West Raynham and RAF Wattisham. The system will consequently be withdrawn from RAF North Coates, RAF Bawdsey, RAF Wyton and RAF Barkston Heath. Hon. Members in whose constituencies these stations lie will have received letters of explanation from me.

    What progress has been made to define the requirement for a medium-range surface-to-air missile to replace Bloodhound? When does my hon. Friend expect to be able to announce progress on this important matter?

    If such a requirement is determined, it would probably be filled by buying another system off the shelf, as it were. We are at such an early stage, however, that it would be premature to go into this matter in any greater detail.

    It is important to mention two major infrastructure programmes. We have nearly completed a programme to provide hardened aircraft shelters, which, as the House knows, are designed to increase the survivability of aircraft at airfields. That work has been funded largely by NATO.

    Another of our major priorities, to which I shall return in a moment, is to enhance the quality of life for service personnel. In this context we are intending to improve the entire stock of married quarters and single-service living accommodation in the next 10 years. This, we believe, will contribute substantially to improving the conditions of service life.

    No speech about the Royal Air Force would be complete without a reference to its most important asset—the personnel who make up the service. In the past year, the trained strength of the Royal Air Force has fallen by about 4 per cent. There are increasing shortfalls in some officer branches as well as in ground engineering and support trades, but the shortfalls are manageable and the Royal Air Force maintains the ability to meet its operational commitments.

    Applications for voluntary release of trained personnel remain higher than we would wish, although I am glad to be able to report that there are now some signs of improvement. We have devised a major revision of the terms of service for airmen for introduction this year, designed to provide greater flexibility and reward longer service. A revision of the terms of service for officers is also under consideration. Greater flexibility is also being incorporated into the rules governing the return to service of ex-airmen and women.

    We are continuing to improve conditions of service by reducing turbulence, increasing job opportunities for wives, promoting greater job satisfaction generally, and improving working and living conditions. I remind the House of the extensive married quarter improvement programme currently in train.

    One particularly important development has been the decision, announced last July, to broaden employment opportunities for female aircrew. As a result, the RAF is now recruiting female pilots, navigators and air engineers, with first-year targets of 25, 10 and four respectively. Some have already begun their training, having been selected according to the same criteria as men. We have found the response to this major change in policy most encouraging.

    We all know that there is concern about naval wives. Has there been any consultation with Air Force wives about such recruitment?

    We are dealing with a completely different situation from that envisaged in sending women to sea in ships. Women are being recruited to use their skills in a number of callings from which they have hitherto been excluded. I wholly applaud that development.

    I asked the Minister whether there had been any consultation. Is the answer no?

    Those of us who have direct connections with the RAF and who have visited RAF stations, have spoken with the wives; we have found that many of them believe that the change of policy is interesting, as many of their daughters are interested in joining the service.

    I am sure that my hon. Friend is right, and I regard it as a progressive step.

    Does my hon. Friend intend that women pilots should fly combat aircraft, or will he keep them strictly to flying transport aircraft or aircraft other than those in wartime use?

    Personally, I would have some reservations about that, but it is a matter that we shall look at as the situation develops. We shall weigh up all the factors that emerge as their skills as pilots are tested and evaluated.

    The Minister has said that he has some reservations. I get the impression that the proposal has been ill thought out. What are the Minister's personal reservations?

    I have given way to the hon. Gentleman four times already, and I will give way to him four more times, if he wishes. I always appreciate his interventions. My reservations—I emphasise that they are personal; perhaps I am over-fastidious—relate to women going into combat and flying combat aircraft. Perhaps I am old-fashioned, but I associate women's special gifts with activities other than the taking of life. If a person goes into combat, the ultimate purpose is to kill the enemy, as those of us who were in the services know. I would be uncomfortable in considering that function being subject to disciplinary instruction to a woman.

    The Minister said that he would give way to me four more times, but I shall take up only one of them. What is the considered view of the Air Staff? Does the decision have the agreement of the Air Staff? The House is entitled to know what the advice from the Air Staff is.

    This is a totally different subject. We are talking about a subject raised by my hon. Friend the Member for Newbury (Sir M. McNair-Wilson)—women in combat. That is a long way even from the consideration, never mind the considered views, of the Air Staff. I told the House about the recruitment of pilots, navigators and air engineers. It is a long way into the future as to whether the skills that emerge should be used in combat.

    I share the concern of my hon. Friend about sending women into combat. Will he explore that comment further, asthat is exactly what will be happening in the Royal Navy?

    We do not know what will happen. I do not want to get involved in that. There are differences between piloting a single-seater aircraft in combat, or piloting a bomber which will deliver a weapon system, and being a member of a crew of up to 1,000 in a situation, whether in combat or otherwise, which does not involve a woman in pulling the trigger, dropping a bomb or directing a missile.

    I should like to conclude this review with a tribute to the Royal Air Force Reserve—the regular Reserve, the Royal Auxiliary Air Force and the RAF Volunteer Reserve. We are profoundly indebted to them for their motivation and commitment, and for their competence and skills.

    I should in particular make reference to the unstinting efforts of Air Chief Marshal Sir John Barraclough as honorary inspector general of the Royal Auxiliary Air Force, which have done much to achieve the current high standards. I welcome as his successor my hon. Friend the Member for Dumfries (Sir H. Monro), who will, I know, maintain the same high level of service and commitment.

    Finally, I come to a subject that profoundly concerns all our personnel in all three services. The threat posed by terrorists of the Provisional Irish Republican Army continues to demand great vigilance from our service men and women and their families. Last autumn saw the particularly brutal murder in the Federal Republic of Germany of Corporal Maheshkumar Islania and his six-month old daughter, Nivruti—a dreadful event, which brought home to us all the depths of wickedness to which terrorists are prepared to descend. None the less, our people in all three services remain steadfastly determined to resist and overcome this threat, and we are taking a wide variety of measures designed to increase their security and to encourage their awareness of the threat and of how it can be countered.

    I end on that sombre note, but I shall seek the leave of the House to address various points which may be raised by hon. Members, if I am fortunate enough to catch your eye at the conclusion of the debate, Mr. Deputy Speaker.

    4.35 pm

    On behalf of my right hon. and hon. Friends, I join the Minister in paying tribute to the few who flew during the battle of Britain. As he said, this year is the 50th anniversary of the battle of Britain, and I am sure that throughout the country tributes will be made in appropriate ways. Opposition Members would like to be a part of those tributes.

    Significantly, in working-class areas—and, indeed, throughout the country—there are a great many cenotaphs and memorials commemorating those brave people who went forth from the mines and factories, put on uniforms and fought to defend our freedoms. I join the Minister in paying tribute to those people and their families. I am pleased that this year the Government decided to treat war widows in a slightly better fashion. It was a step in the right direction.

    The Minister was right to say that the battle of Britain was a close-run affair. That was because of the desperate state of our defences. I admire his usual honesty in acknowledging that there was a Tory Government in power at that time. Of course, I could mention certain instances that would highlight the paucity of our present air defences, but I must get on with my speech.

    The announcement that women are to be trained to fly fast jets is a step forward. However, the problem of whether women should be used in combat requires greater discussion. The Government introduced the measure to allow women to go back to work in the coal mines—something which, coming from my background, I find appalling. Like the Minister, I also have reservations about women being involved in combat.

    I am assured by the specialists in the Labour party—none of whom is here today—that women are capable of flying in combat roles. The physical constraints involving G-forces and tight turns—although not necessarily over display areas—might be the only reason why they could not fly in combat.

    I join the Minister in condemning the cowardly indiscriminate bombing attacks on British service men and their families. There was a spate of bombings some years ago in Wales. I know one of the people who were responsible, and he received a long gaol sentence. He came from my village. Many say that such people are brave men, who are courageous in their cause. When that man was released, I told him that I could think of nothing more despicable or cowardly than to put a bomb in a left-luggage compartment at a railway station and then to walk away. In that instance the bomb was directed against people in Cardiff who were returning after work to the valleys. There is nothing brave about dumping a hag. The sooner that the people who give succour and support to terrorists realise that those are cowardly rather than brave acts, which require no physical courage, the better. Opposition Members condemn such actions and join the Minister in paying sympathy to the families of those who may have suffered as a result of such cowardly attacks.

    Last Thursday the Western Mail—which I know the Minister does not read because it circulates only in Wales, although a few copies find their way into the House—carried a report of a rescue operation by a RAF Sea King helicopter operating out of RAF Brawdy in west Wales. Some 240 miles out in the Atlantic, the 20 seamen were rescued in the most appalling conditions in which, almost certainly, they would have lost their lives. The skill and courage of the pilot and aircrew was outstanding.

    I commend, in particular, the bravery of the winchman, flight sergeant Graham Philips, who was washed overboard. If it were not for his lifeline back to the helicopter, he would have lost his life. It was RAF Brawdy's second long-range rescue in just a few days. The previous incident was in the same area of the Atlantic when a disabled ore carrier had to be disembarked.

    Among our lifeboat crews, the helicopter crews of the search and rescue squadrons have an envied tradition of selfless courage and humanitarian acts. They deserve the commendation of the House for their bravery. I mention those incidents, first, to praise those who participate, but also to highlight some aspects of the future of sea and air rescue and the procurement of helicopters.

    Some time ago the Government proposed the privatisation of sea and air rescue. Against a background of massive protests from both sides of the House, the proposals were modified or withdrawn. When he winds up, will the Minister give the present status of those proposals? There are fears that the Government will resurrect them and consider privatising the service. I warn the Minister that if the Government do so, he will encounter the same problems as he did before from hon. Members on both sides of the House.

    If the Government are not to privatise the search and rescue service, what will they do about re-equipping the squadrons with new helicopters? The present Wessex helicopters are coming to the latter part of their operational lives. A decision must be made soon on their replacement; indeed, across a range of other helicopter requirements, a decision is required.

    I reiterate the question of the hon. Member for Wyre (Mr. Mans): when will the Government place a firm order for the EH101? The Royal Navy pre-production aircraft, with a full mission system, has been flying since 24 October 1989. The anti-submarine variant, as currently specified and contracted, is going well. I understand that the RAF's intended Utility EH101 is well within schedule. All that is needed now, three years after the previous Secretary of State said that the Ministry of Defence was looking for 25 RAF and 50 Navy EHIOls, is for the Government to make a decision.

    The hon. Gentleman, with his interest in helicopters, will realise that we should purchase, not a particular helicopter, but the right helicopter, the best helicopter for the task that has to be performed. I hope that he will say that that is his view and what our Royal Air Force needs. We must be careful not to lock ourselves into a position where we never buy the right equipment.

    I think that that question would have been better directed to the Government than to me, because they have to make the decision, not me. I am rather alarmed if the hon. Gentleman, who I think is a member of the Select Committee on Defence——

    No, he is not. Perhaps that explains—if I might say, in the kindest way—his ignorance on the matter.

    I see that the Chairman of the Select Committee is nodding.

    I should explain the position to the hon. Member for Tayside, North (Mr. Walker), although I am sure that the Minister will do so in his wind-up speech. The Government have made a decision on the EH101. In 1987, the Secretary of State said that the Government were going to purchase 25 EH101s for the RAF and 50 for the Royal Navy. The helicopter has gone through project definition and pre-production trials. I think that nine have already flown. It is now merely a matter of integrating the mission system. One can go along that line, preparing for a project to come into operation, but at some stage a decision has to be made. Unless it is made now, the manufacturers and people involved in the industry will have a big gap in the middle of the 1990s when they will not have any orders. I do not know whether the hon. Member for Tayside, North is proposing that we should buy, not the Apache, but the Black Hawk or some other shoe horn variety. I am sure that they have all been considered, but I should have thought that the EH101 was, if I may repeat the expression that has already been used, a cast iron, copper-bottomed decision. The question is, when? That is what we are asking.

    Will the hon. Gentleman tell us what he thinks the Government should do? Should the Government make a decision in favour of the EH101?

    Yes. The helicopter is important and the EH101 is vital to the industry. The requirements are known. The current contract available on the EH101 is a target cost-incentive contract which, when it was signed in March 1984, was hailed as a great step forward in defence contracting. At that time Sir Peter Levene extolled the virtues of the new process of procurement. One of the signal parts of such a contract is that the cost is shared between industry and Government. Certainly, the industry has already put its money where its mouth is and invested millions of pounds. It is now up to the Government to come up with firm orders so that it can proceed with production.

    In Question Time some weeks ago, the Minister said that last October the Government entered into negotiations with the company for a maximum price contract. I do not see why we have to go on and on talking like this. The Chairman of the Select Committee is present and the Select Committee said, and it was implicit throughout the recently published report, that it was about time a decision was made.

    Bearing in mind the hon. Gentleman's commitment to the EH101 and the need for air mobility, does he believe that this helicopter is the right one to purchase in view of the fact that it will also have to fit in with the various RAF transport aircraft to back up that air mobility?

    The operational roles of many of those aircraft are, I presume, under constant review by the Government. The Opposition have been asking for a major defence review for a long time. I should have thought that with the changes that are happening, particularly in eastern Europe, the Government should have a formal defence review. I accept that the position is dynamic and not static, but a decision has to be made. Unless we plan ahead, we shall not have the equipment for our service men, to whom the Minister paid great tribute today.

    I am sorry to keep interrupting the hon. Gentleman. Has he made any assessment of whether the EH101 is capable of being transported in the aircraft that the Royal Air Force has at present and looks like having for some time, particularly the Hercules?

    Mr. Barry Jones
    (Alyn and Deeside)